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Exploring Connecticut’s witchcraft past

‘Salem gets all the attention, but we have a much longer history.’

An old warehouse at the cove in Wethersfield remains from the time when ships traveled from the West Indies to the shores of the Atlantic and up the Connecticut River with trade goods.
An old warehouse at the cove in Wethersfield remains from the time when ships traveled from the West Indies to the shores of the Atlantic and up the Connecticut River with trade goods.Pamela Wright

When 16-year-old Kit Tyler, the heroine of the beloved children’s book “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” arrives on the shores of the New World, she is not welcome.

“It was a complete surprise, and not a happy one, when Kit arrived here at her aunt and uncle’s house,” said Bruce Henley, historian and tour guide with the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum. “She was a stranger to them from Barbados, and another mouth to feed.”

We were standing on the stairs of the Buttolph-Williams House, an historic c. 1711 house in Wethersfield, Conn. Elizabeth George Speare, a resident of Wethersfield and author of “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” used the house as the setting for her Newbery Medal-winning book.

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"The Witch of Blackbird Pond."
"The Witch of Blackbird Pond."handout

We entered the old, Medieval-looking house, with its worn, dark siding and cross-hatch, diamond-cut windows, its timber framing, broad exposed beams, and wood plank floors. “The house has never had electricity or running water,” Henley said, guiding us into the original Colonial kitchen, furnished with period furniture gathered around a wide, deep, walk-in Colonial fireplace. Cast iron cooking pots and utensils surround the hearth, where its former residents would have gathered, and where much of the cooking was done. It’s also where much of the action takes place in the book, where Kit learns to cook (after messing up corn pudding), where she shocks the local clergyman by putting on a play, where her crippled cousin spends all her days. A pair of crutches lean against the wall.

The Buttolph-Williams House.
The Buttolph-Williams House.Handout

We continued the tour of the house, into the formal parlor, reserved for special events, and where Kit entertained one of her suitors, and then upstairs into the bedrooms, where the cousins shared a room, and the spinning, sewing, and weaving took place. We could see why Speare chose the house for much of the book’s setting: it’s a splendid example of 17th-century, restored Colonial architecture, and easily conjures up life during sparse, Puritanical times.

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After the house tour, we picked up a beautiful, colored map of Wethersfield 1687, locating other places and events described in the story. We walked to the location of the early Meeting House, now the site of the First Church of Christ Congregational, where George Washington and John Adams once visited. We meandered through the Broad Street Green, a former livestock grazing area, now filled with towering elms, oaks, and sycamores. We climbed Hungry Hill, home to the town’s Ancient Burying Ground and Village Cemetery, dating back to 1648. Historians would love the cemetery filled with funerary art and home to the burial plots of several historical figures and four former slaves.

The Buttolph-Williams House.
The Buttolph-Williams House.Handout

The leafy Old Wethersfield neighborhood, the first permanent settlement in Connecticut, also has the largest historic district in the state, filled with 18th- and 19th-century homes. Main Street is a beauty, lined with stately 100-year-old trees, small museums, and lovely pocket gardens, ending at the shores of pretty Wethersfield Cove. We drove the short distance to the cove, where Kit first arrived in 1687. At that time, ships traveled from the West Indies to the shores of the Atlantic and up the Connecticut River with trade goods. Today, the cove, once known as Blackbird Pond, is a tranquil spot to hang out, with a small beach, picnic areas, and boat launch.

But we were reminded that it was not always peaceful and just in Wethersfield, in fiction or in real life. Speare’s character Kit was not readily accepted by the Puritan community, because she was different, and because she befriended an older Quaker widow that the village had ostracized, and who was eventually charged with witchcraft. This is grounded in Wethersfield history, as the town played a long and active role in the witch hysteria during early Colonial America.

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“Salem [Massachusetts] gets all the attention,” Henley said, “but we have a much longer history.”

Hungry Hill is home to Wethersfield’s Ancient Burying Ground and Village Cemetery, dating back to 1648.
Hungry Hill is home to Wethersfield’s Ancient Burying Ground and Village Cemetery, dating back to 1648.Pamela Wright

In fact, Connecticut’s witch trials were among the first in New England, preceding Salem’s by four decades. The confession of witchcraft by Wethersfield resident Mary Johnson in 1648 was the first of 43 Connecticut cases, with 16 ending in execution. The first married couple ever tried for witchcraft, John and Joan Carrington, were executed three years later. And then there was Katherine Harrison, from Wethersfield. Harrison was a former servant who married a wealthy landowner. When he died, she and her daughters inherited his holdings, much to the dislike of her neighbors, who later brought charges of witchcraft against her. On Oct. 12, 1669, a jury found her guilty, but the court did not move to execute her. Instead, the judge established a panel to formulate better procedures and rules of evidence, which made it more difficult to convict someone of witchcraft.

“It was Katherine Harrison from Wethersfield who changed the future of the witch trials,” Henley says.

In “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” Kit Tyler, who is different than others in her Puritan community, is also accused of witchcraft, tried, but finally cleared in a happily-ever-after ending. But the story — and the history of towns like Wethersfield — explores the themes of prejudice, superstition, and intolerance. All timely, timeless topics in today’s complex world.

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For the first time, the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum will open the Buttolph-Williams House for public tours through Nov. 15. Tours are offered at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m. by advance registration. To register contact acting co-director Cynthia Riccio at criccio@webb-deane-stevens.org. $10 nonmembers, $7 members. The self-guided Wethersfield 1687 walking map locating events described in the story of “The Witch of Blackbird Pond is available at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com